One of the first things I like to do with my clients, is help them identify their major investment themes, and how those investment themes support their vision for the product. Said another way, we work together to identify the major epics they want to build, and then we talk about how those epics are going to add value for their customers.
After we identify the epics, we’ll have a conversation about each one… we’ll talk about the architecture and other technical implications. We’ll talk about the acceptance criteria and how that maps to what they want to accomplish. We’ll dive a little deeper and talk about the major features and stories that might comprise that epic.
Next I’ll ask them for a high level estimate for the epic… just back of the envelope stuff… how big do they think it is? If the team had nothing else to do, how many sprints might the epic take to complete? What I want is a non-binding, rough idea of how much effort the team thinks it will take to complete the work.
This is an interesting exercise for a couple of reasons. First… you can very quickly see that the team has an overwhelming amount of work they are being asked to consider. The sum total almost always doubles, triples, or even quadruples the team’s actual capacity. Second… if you prioritize the epics, you can pretty easily get a rough idea of what is going to make the cut and what isn’t.
The value in the high level estimate has nothing to do with the actual size of the epic… it should be a focusing tool to help us quickly zoom in on our most pressing priorities. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet a customer that can’t figure out what they’d like to build… most struggle to figure out what they are going to have to leave out.
High-level estimates are not about making a commitment, they are really about setting and managing expectations around what is realistically possible. Once we’ve dealt with our highest priorities first… if there is extra capacity, we can deal with the other stuff we couldn’t get to the first time around.